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How to Read a Poem

HOW TO READ A POEM

 Reprinted from "Musings,"Outlook, August 27, 2009

            This one comes in direct response to a reader who wrote to me that he doesn’t read much poetry because it never makes any sense to him.  This is not the first time I’ve heard this complaint about poetry.

            The problem, I think, with understanding poetry is that we don’t encounter it often enough.  Language, by its very nature, is tricky.  My wife and I misunderstand each other on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.  Usually one of us assumes the other has knowledge about something that they don’t, and so we begin talking about it as if the other knows what we’re talking about. I have similar difficulties with my teen-aged sons.  The noises they make sound like English, but the words never mean what I think they mean.  This is particularly distressing because I was their English teacher from 6th grade on up.

In most areas we overcome the trickiness of language by using it frequently.  We encounter spoken language daily, prose also daily, even fiction on a fairly regular basis.  With poetry, however, most of us only encounter it in a classroom, where the assumption is that a poem has multiple layers of meaning and our job is to painstakingly pull out all the possibilities.  So, we’re immediately set up to feel like any attempt we make at fully understanding the poem is bound to be inadequate.  To make matters worse, most of the poetry we’re presented with in classes was created in another century, often in another country such that the language is much less familiar than the language we encounter in other types of communication.

One additional impediment to understanding poetry is the fact that much poetry lacks the grammatical props of prose.  To some degree poetry, rather than just telling a story, attempts to recreate the emotional, psychological, perceptual, spiritual, and perhaps even physical experience of an event, thought, or feeling, and since we don’t experience things in complete and grammatically correct sentences, poets sometimes abandon those conventions as well.  Finally, it is true that some few poets don’t care if their work is understood; they may think their task is to create a puzzle, to challenge the reader, or simply to express themselves without any consideration of the audience. 

All of this adds up to make some people believe they can’t understand a poem.  So, here is a very brief guide on how to read a poem:

1.      RELAX AND ENJOY.  There is no right way, no criteria for successfully reading a poem.  There won’t be a test, and your 10th grade English teacher isn’t going to appear and tell you, “That’s not it at all.”  If you can’t enjoy the language, imagery, and tensions of the poem, then you’re either trying too hard or you’ve got a poem that on at least one level you’re not meant to enjoy at this time.  Move on; there are others.

2.      READ AS YOU WOULD READ ANY OTHER TEXT.  Follow the cues of punctuation.  Most contemporary poetry de-emphasizes traditional poetic features like rhythm and rhyme in favor of realism.  Those elements are often still there but more subtly, almost invisibly supporting the meaning, mood, or feeling of the poem.  Usually at least one level of meaning arises from a simple, straightforward reading of the poem

3.      IF YOU WANT DEEPER MEANING, READ DEEPER.  Read it repeatedly, all the way through the first time, then focusing more on individual stanzas, lines, phrases.  Analyze individual words and images for connotations and associations.  Ask others to read it and discuss your understandings.  But none of this is required or expected.  Only go this far if you have a desire to do so, you think the poem deserves it, or you owe it to the poet.

4.      READ MORE POETRY

That’s it really.  Most contemporary poetry is much more accessible than one might

think.  Most poets want to be read and want to be understood.  At the same time they want their poems to be an enjoyable intellectual experience.  Once a reader gets past the blocks against poetry that they’ve brought with them, they discover they can easily enough enjoy the poem and achieve a meaningful level of understanding.  So, to paraphrase the once-popular commercial, Just Read It.